Making sense of Politicisation in the New Zealand Public Service

Politicisation, which is when partisan considerations get into the advice and operations of a non-partisan public service, is a perennial concern. Richard Shaw (Professor in Politics at Massey University) and Chris Eichbaum (Adjunct Professor in the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington) explore politicisation in the New Zealand public service and ask what the recent Working in the Public Service survey tells us about it.

The conversation about politicisation is generally characterised by a good deal of noise, various assumptions regarding what should be the case and conflicting conceptions about exactly what is at issue. In this country, perhaps the only point on which there is something approaching agreement is that politicisation is something to be avoided (although there are those who would contest this, too).

In this article, we summarise what’s been written on politicisation and look at the data collected through the Working in the Public Service survey. We’d like to provide a profile on the nature and extent of politicisation in the New Zealand public service.

Specifically, we’ll explore three related conceptions of politicisation: formal, functional, and administrative. The first speaks to the role of political executives (Cabinet in the New Zealand context) in critical public service appointments, the second to the motives and activities of the administrative executive (the ‘public service’, broadly defined) and the third to the conduct of ministerial advisors, the most recent addition to the contemporary executive triangle. We take each concept in turn, providing a brief definition and then examining the survey data through that particular lens. When taken together, these ideas help explain what intra-executive encounters mean for the impartiality of the public service.

Formal politicisation

Most discussions about politicisation tend to focus on the incentives for ministers to appoint sympathetic people to key bureaucratic positions. The sympathy may be ideological, with political ‘fellow travellers’ appointed to fill positions vacated with a change of government. In a related, but not equivalent sense, the sympathy may relate to the policy preferences of the government of the day and extend to domain knowledge or expertise within a particular policy field. In these ‘formal’ ideas of politicisation, control over and criteria for hiring people into the top levels of the public service are seen as the most important way for politicians to get the senior bureaucrats to work with responsiveness and loyalty. First principles discussions about the value of different policy responses to a problem – or even whether a ‘problem’ exists – are replaced by advice on how to apply a policy response to a ‘problem’ that has already been decided.

In Peters and Pierre’s publication Politicisation of the public service in comparative perspective: The quest for control, the authors define civil service politicisation as “the substitution of political criteria for merit-based criteria in the selection, retention, promotion, rewards and disciplining of members of the civil service”.

As a means of asserting control over the public service, the assumption is that if top officials are ‘one of us’ (to paraphrase former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher), they are more likely to design and deliver the sorts of policies ‘we’ want – or, better still, get on with implementing the policies that the government of the day has already determined are both justified and required.

What does the survey tell us?

The survey questionnaire designed by BusinessDesk and IPANZ, included a series of questions regarding merit appointments in the civil service. Even though these questions were about appointments within departments and agencies (and not just those at the very top), respondents’ opinions on the nature and effects of hiring and promotion in the public service are certainly important.

The indications are that New Zealand’s public servants disagree about both what the merit principle means and how it should be used. Broadly, just over 60 percent of respondents were confident that merit considerations drive appointments and promotions in their own organisations (unsurprisingly, Tier 1/Tier 2 respondents had the highest rates of agreement). At the same time, roughly the same proportion felt that if they were to apply for another position within central government, that process would be based on the merits of the applicants. However, under half (42.8 percent) of respondents disagree that the public service is less likely these days to make merit-based appointments than it was in the past: 29.6 percent agree or strongly agree that this is so, while 27.6 percent did not express a view on the matter.

Significantly, respondents tended to frame ‘merit’ as a diversity issue (rather than one of technical expertise or political responsiveness). As might be expected, positions are split. For one participant, there “is a strong agenda around Diversity and Inclusion, which I think creates a bias against merit-based appointments. … [W]e are now going on Te Tiriti training to understand what our obligations are. I fear this is an attempt to support political bias.” For another, “Appointments are based on ethnicity, gender then merit, in that order. White men are actively discriminated against.” For others, however – including those who feel “merit-based appointments continue to appoint people with a narrow range of lived experiences and … encourage a Wellington view of the world that is out of sync with the lived realities of most people”, and that such processes “privilege those that are already privileged” – more could be done to ensure a more diverse public sector workforce.

Functional politicisation

Functional politicisation, according to Hustedt and Salomonsen’s 2014 article in the International Review of Administrative Sciences describes “a mechanism by which the public service performs politically responsive bureaucratic behaviour”. Here it is officials’ conduct rather than the basis of their appointment which is the focus. More specifically, what is being looked at is how public workers choose to include political factors in their work. In short, the behavioural influences are endogenous: politicisation is something that we ‘do to ourselves’.

How free and frank are public servants really?

The survey items concerning the provision of free and frank advice provide the clearest insights into the extent to which functional politicisation is an issue in the public service. Most respondents (74 percent) believe their organisation’s senior leaders model the principle of free and frank advice. However, some 28 percent of Tier 3–5 respondents indicated they worried about how popular their own advice would be within their organisation or with the government (a concern shared by only 11.8 percent of Tier 1/Tier 2 respondents). More generally, respondents are split on the proposition that the public service is less free and frank with its advice than it once was: 31.3 percent believe this to be the case, while 32.5 percent take the opposite view.

Participants’ textual responses elaborated on these concerns. References to self-censorship included that, “Agencies are very risk-averse and tell the Ministers what they want to hear”; “The viewpoints of public servants are increasingly polarised and partisan, and workplaces make it difficult to hold alternative positions”; and “My observation … is that managers are more inclined to ‘manage upwards’ and factor consideration of political risks into their provision of advice (tell the minister what s/he wants to hear, warn them of any adverse consequences and advise them in advance of how to manage fallout).”

Some of this might be in anticipation of pressure being brought to bear by ministers and their political advisers. However, it may also be a function of the longevity of administrations, with one participant suggesting that “working in the public service in the third term of the National government, most advice was self-censored. We knew what would rile ministers and what they wanted to hear.” This respondent also suggested that the consequences of this sort of partisan effect can settle, or solidify, within the public service: “Under the (2017) coalition government, after nine years of National, some senior public servants struggled to pivot to be more open-minded/free and frank advice even though ministers, I think, were genuinely asking us for our ideas (the stuff we’d had to sit on for nine years).” Anecdotally, we have heard from Ministers in that incoming government that their challenge was eliciting the free-thinking and challenging ideas associated with free and frank advice. The institutional predisposition was reactive and risk-averse.

Administrative politicisation

The third concept, administrative politicisation, refers to interventions by political advisers “that offend against the principles and conventions associated with a professional and impartial civil service” (as written by us in 2014 in Governance). The concept has both procedural and substantive dimensions. The first describes efforts by political staff to constrain officials’ capacity to provide responsible competence (for example, by obstructing their access to ministers). In contrast, the second refers to direct attempts to inject partisan considerations into public servants’ advice (by, for instance, directing officials to tailor their advice in particular ways).

Survey respondents were asked what they thought about the idea that ministerial advisers do not encourage free and honest advice on all of the government’s policy options. Two-thirds (64.8 percent) of all respondents either did not express a view on the statement or neither agreed nor disagreed with it (suggesting, perhaps, that many participants have little or no contact with advisers). Some 24 percent either strongly or mainly agreed with the statement, and just over 11 percent took issue with it. A quarter of respondents (25.4 percent) agreed that the risks posed by ministerial advisers to public service neutrality have increased over time, with just 7.8 percent suggesting that is not the case (and fully 66.8 percent opting not to take a definitive position on the matter). Overall, senior respondents tended to be less sanguine about ministerial advisers than those further down the chain of command: familiarity may not breed contempt, but it may engender caution.

The case for ministerial advisers

Both kinds of administrative politicisation were mentioned by respondents when talking about ministerial advisers. The comment that “ministerial advisors, in particular PMO, exercise a constraining influence on our ability to provide good advice that is outside the sometimes doctrinaire positions promoted by PM/Ministers” is consistent with substantive administrative politicisation, while the reflection that there was “someone who had been working for two years and vetoing the advice we sent over to a Minister” points to procedural interference on the part of political staff.

Some participants made the positive case for ministerial advisers. An experienced, skilled ministerial adviser can serve as a sort of interpreter, helping a department understand the mind of the minister. As one respondent explained: “They can help with the load on Ministers and provide valuable feedback to departments, they can help us with understanding of context and identifying stakeholders in issues, can help with understanding a minister’s programme.” For another, “Political advisors who act within their mandate provide clarity about the line between partisan and non-partisan activity, assisting public servants to remain within their domain.”

These comments resonate strongly with the overall thrust of the findings of our own research over an extended period. There are risks, but on balance, they are being managed or mitigated. Also, aggregate assessments risk masking specific cases, which may or may not surface in the public domain. While there is evidence of egregious behaviour by political advisors, the issue is less systemic than situational – and, assuming that Ministers (and their staff) are familiar with the Cabinet Manual, may well be somewhat heroic.

Concluding comments – the need to keep talking

Stepping back from the details, there are a few things to say about views regarding politicisation in the New Zealand public service. First, it is not to be found on a spectrum; rather, politicisation exists in the context of complex interactions between ministers, ministerial advisers and officials. As such, there are demand and supply sides to the issue. Politicisation is not just something that is done to public servants: it can also be something officials engage in themselves. The data surveyed here suggest that in addition to outside pressures, politicisation is also bubbling up from within departments and agencies. This says something about the internal state of these organisations, such as incentives built into the appointment process, that can’t be put solely on the shoulders of political advisers or ministers.

Second, the three forms of politicisation are not discrete categories of behaviour. For instance, the observation that “many government departments, including my own, are terrible at pushing back against unreasonable or plain stupid requests by ministerial advisors and ministers” points to an interplay between administrative (unreasonable or stupid requests from advisers) and functional (which we don’t push back against) forms of politicisation. Here is a second example of this sort of thing: “Political advisors insist on bad OIA processes and decisions (regardless of whether Minister or agency is OIA’d). Agencies cave to this behaviour.” Rather than restricting our understandings of politicisation to matters of appointment and promotion, we should take a broader view.

Relatedly, it is worth noting that in other contexts, some feel functional politicisation is unproblematic. As Öhberg and colleagues wrote in 2017, for instance, a civil service acting “without regard for their government’s political ambitions would be of limited use to the same, or even worse: be beyond democratic control”. In this country, however (as in the wider Westminster community), we usually have a different conversation. There is a minority view that civil servants can be sensitive to the situational risks of ministers’ political environments, such that responsive and responsible competence coexist in a form of “constrained partisanship” (as written by Mulgan in the article ‘How much responsiveness is too much or too little?’, published in the Australian Journal of Public Administration in 2008).

Most of the time, though, this kind of tempered bias is not allowed in the public service. Aucoin (writing in 2012 in Governance) is especially scathing about how much loyalty to and support for the government of the day has come to require “promiscuous partisanship” amongst civil servants. That tone is also struck by some participants in the Working in the Public Service survey.

Finally, while temperatures often rise in debates about politicisation, it is important to remind ourselves that the issue is as much facts as it is about rules. We constantly need to talk about the causes and effects of politicisation in this country, and the Working in the Public Service survey has given us exactly the kind of information we need to do that.

Future reading

Aucoin, P. (2012). New political governance in Westminster systems: Impartial public administration and management performance at risk. Governance, 25(2), 177–99.

Eichbaum, C. and Shaw, R. (2008). Revisiting politicisation: Political advisers and public servants in Westminster systems. Governance, 21(3), 337–63.

Hustedt, T. and Salomonsen, H. (2014). Ensuring political responsiveness: Politicisation mechanisms in ministerial bureaucracies. International Review of Administrative Sciences, 80(4), 746–65.

Mulgan R. (2008). How much responsiveness is too much or too little? Australian Journal of Public Administration, 67(3), 345–56.

Peters, B. G. and Pierre, P. (2004). Politicisation of the public service: Concepts, causes, and consequences. In B. G. Peters and J. Pierre (Eds.), Politicisation of the public service in comparative perspective: The quest for control (1–13). New York: Routledge.

Öhberg, P., Christiansen, P. M. and Niklasson, B. (2017). Administrative politicisation or contestability? How political advisers affect neutral competence in policy processes. Public Administration, 95(1), 269–85.

This article was published in the Public Sector Journal - Winter 2023, Issue 46.2.